Here is another fascinating photograph of a Liverpool court which demands a storyline.The young man with his caged bird standing between two grim-faced women suggests impending eviction. Certainly, it was around the time that the street, which backed on to the Walker Art Gallery and the Museum, was demolished in the 1930s slum clearance programme – which saw Gerard Gardens spring up nearby. What tough lives are etched in all their faces! Everything about their demeanour suggests resignation and defeat – but perhaps there was a different storyline (although I don’t think they had just won the Pools).
The courts and back streets of Liverpool’s slums were private places where few outsiders ventured. In 1856, the journalist Hugh Shimmin railed against ‘the old, dilapidated courthouses, with their fetid air and small squalid rooms’ which ‘still form the only dwellings which are supposed to be within the means of the labouring and casually employed poor … the Liverpool courts present scenes of social degredation and misery which it will be almost hopeless to induce people who have no practical acquaintances with the habits of the people to believe.’
Photographers tended to avoid the slums, probably with good reason. The hand-held camera allowed some anonymity, but most amateurs stuck to the street scenes around Pier Head and St John’s Market. You will not find Ben Jonson Street (rather inappropriately named after the dramatist and poet contemporary of Shakespeare) in Gore’s Directory because it is not listed (along with all the other surrounding courts and backstreets. The population was so numerous and transient that there was little value adding the current occupants to its list). This view of the street (which connected Comus Street and Scotland Road) is particularly interesting in that the raised viewpoint has captured a candid scene that contrasts with the later photographs of the City Engineer’s Department where a plate camera was used at street level. My immediate thought is that the photographer is sitting on the upper deck of an omnibus as it passed along Scotland Road.
The doss-house with its sign ‘good accomodation for travellers’ (sic) reminds me of the ubiquitous sign outside public houses offering good food and fine ales. When did you ever see a sign offering bad food or bad accommodation? The thought of a night in such a place does not bear thinking about.
Photograph courtesy of Liverpool Record Office.